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Posts published in “Idaho”

A Meridian milestone

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This seems too significant a milestone in Idaho history to go unheralded - and noted for what Idaho is becoming.

From the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), on Tuesday:

“In 1990, the City of Meridian had a population of less than 10,000. Today we estimate a population of 106,410 – a leap of more than 10-fold in 28 years, making it one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.”

That’s not exactly an official number, since it isn’t a U.S. Census statistic, but it’s probably pretty close. Likely it means that after the 2020 census, Meridian will be reported with a population well over 100,000, and Nampa, which will be in third place among Idaho cities, has a good chance of clearing 100,000 as well. (Below that the numbers will fall steeply, down to Idaho Falls at probably about 65,000.)

The city on top, Boise, now is estimated at 232,300 people.

This means those three largest cities, all within a few miles of each other, between them will be home to nearly a half-million people. But even that understates the picture, since COMPASS also estimates the current overall population of Ada and Canyon counties at 688,110. At the current growth rate, if that number is a good estimate, then those two counties may account for close to 750,000 people by the time of the next census.

Idaho’s total population is now estimated at 1.75 million by the Census. If COMPASS is right, then Ada and Canyon alone now account for 39.3 percent of the state’s population. In, say, 1980, that percentage was 27.1 percent.

Put another way, Ada and Canyon together are becoming a much bigger piece of the Idaho population. A generation ago, it accounted for about a quarter of the Idaho population; not many years from now, it may account for half. This is a long-term trend, and it will change Idaho.

What does the future of Idaho look like?

Look at Meridian. When I came to Idaho in the early 70s, Meridian’s population was under 6,000 people; now, you have to add 100,000 to that. They live mostly in a vast expanse of subdivisions and other housing developments.

What has generated that development? At core, it isn’t business or government growth. Lots of businesses and government (and educational and health facilities) have sprouted, but they’re mostly there to service the people who moved to the area. These people moved to a sprawling field of suburbia, a relatively affordable place with lots of new housing and new services. It is a bedroom community, serving the nearby area and its own internal growth.

Don’t expect this to end soon. In the new book (put together by the Association of Idaho Cities and which - disclosure here - I published) called Idaho’s 200 Cities, Meridian saw its future this way: “By 2050 Meridian’s population will more than double with many of its boundaries abutting those of neighboring cities.” That does not sound like an unreasonable projection from where we are now.

The smaller-population areas of Idaho that also have been growing quickly - around Twin Falls and Coeur d’Alene, for example - are similar: Suburbs that look a lot like Meridian.

The people of Idaho were once, in large part, cowboys, farmers, miners and loggers. Some still are, but increasingly they are suburbanites. Look upon Meridian, and see Idaho’s future.
 

The Democratic contest?

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Will Idaho Democrats get a seriously contested race for the gubernatorial nomination this year?

The apparent answer is yes …

The party often has had contested primaries, in the strict sense of more than one person on the ballot. But the last time a Democrat won the nomination for governor with less than an outright landslide was 20 years ago (Robert Huntley, with 54.3%), though even that was a runaway win in a four-person field. The last close contest for the party’s Democratic nomination for governor was in 1970, when Cecil Andrus won over Vern Ravenscroft, with a plurality of the vote.

Could the contest this year between A.J. Balukoff and Paulette Jordan come close?

Balukoff has some major advantages which might lead him to a decisive win. Democratic voters know him from having run statewide for the same office four years ago so he is positioned to pick up from where he left off in organizing and contacts, and an already-prepared message. And, of course, money; he has a good deal of that, and demonstrated last time he’s quite willing to spend it. He has also been very civically active, on the Boise School Board and elsewhere.

In 2014 he seemed to display ambiguity about just how much of a Democrat he was (in common with the Democratic governor nominee before him, Keith Allred), but appears more aligned with the party now. On the other hand, some Republicans and some Democrats each point out that as a Boise business community kind of guy, he has been close to the Boise business Republican community; current Republican governor candidate Tommy Ahlquist donated $5,000 to Balukoff four years ago, as many in both parties well remember.

That gets into the internal Democratic argument against him: That he might seem more like another (failed) attempt to appeal to Republicans, instead of someone who might excite Democrats.

The idea of exciting that Democratic base, modest as it might be in Idaho, is a lot of what undergirds Paulette Jordan’s bid. Jordan is a now-former state representative, the last legislator (at this writing) elected in Idaho between Boise and the Canada border. She has presence (and by many accounts, some charisma), a history of actually being elected as a Democrat (in highly contested elections), legislative background (meaning experience in state government) and a life story that can hook many people’s attention. She is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and has won election to the tribal council.

Some party people, though, have questions about her preparation for the candidacy and the job. Her accomplishment report card as a legislator gets mixed marks depending on who you talk to. There was the confusion last legislative session, for example, about whether she would resign or not, and seeming lack of think-through about the implications of quitting or staying.

Her core stances on state issues resemble Balukoff’s, but the approach and tone is different. Some politics watchers suggest that many 2016 Bernie Sanders supporters may break for Jordan, hearing from her something closer to their sensibility. Sanders did well in the Idaho caucuses in 2016, though that’s a smaller group, and a different type of voter, than primary election voters.

Again, how many voters will the Democratic primary attract next month, when so many hot races are underway on the Republican side? If the number is small, who does that help? You can argue either way.

The answers may come down to what Democrats are looking for: A standard-bearer to charge with their message, or a more centrist-appealing candidate who might pick up the pieces if the Republican primary end game goes sour.

Look in the answer to that question for the likely result of the Democratic primary. Which might indeed be closely contested.
 

What was local TV news

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What Sinclair Broadcasting is doing feels personal to me. It should feel personal to you.

When I came to Idaho 44 years ago, Boise’s Channel 2 station, which was KBOI (later KBCI, then KBOI again), had been a landmark in Idaho journalism, renowned among reporters and producing a crop of the best, not least among them a news director who had just become Boise’s new mayor.

In 1990 I worked there for a time, and while television journalism wasn’t by then quite what it had been a couple of decades earlier, there were still fine journalists doing good work at that station.

And still are today. But nowadays, I have to extend my sympathy to them. They face challenges I and their other predecessors never did.

Channel 2 now is owned by the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting group; KLEW television is Lewiston is owned by Sinclair as well, as are stations in Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and many others - 172 around the country, with probable expansion to 233 before long. Like most local television (and radio) stations these days, Idaho’s stations mostly are owned by large national corporations.

That isn’t new. The news is what Sinclair is doing to its local stations.

The concerns many of us in local news a generation or two ago had with far-away corporate ownership, tended to involve budgets or internal structural issues. We seldom (and this was true at newspapers as well as broadcast) heard even echoes of specific takes on news coverage, and rarer still encountered anything “must-run” from corporate, much less any direction toward a political preference. The news reports you saw in the local news were, for better or worse, developed by the local staff. I know; back in the day, for a short stretch, I wrote some of them myself.

This is what’s new with Sinclair.

Watch the video posted at https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/, under the headline, “How America's Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump's War On The Media.” It compiles clips from dozens of Sinclair stations - KBOI is one of them - showing anchors robotically reciting, word for word, a script handed down from Sinclair corporate, in essence advising viewers to believe nothing of what they see or hear from any other news source (Sinclair’s presumably exempted).

Cable host John Oliver nailed it: “Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”

There’s power, and danger, in the image of these local people, with established local reputations, doing this, which is why Sinclair’s executives are going to the trouble.

“Must-run” sequences, strewn in among (diminishing) local news, have become regular, witness the "Bottom Line With Boris" clips, the “Terrorism Alert Desk” - anything to ratchet up fear. On March 21 viewers saw former Trump staffer Sebastian Gorka on the "Deep State." And much more.

Not everyone nationally has gone along. Complaints have leaked; at least one on-air person reported feeling “like a POW” delivering the ordered anti-journalism message. A station in Madison, Wisconsin tweeted that it "did not air the Sinclair promotional announcement … we stayed true to our commitment to provide our Madison area viewers local news, weather and sports of interest to them." Will they still have their jobs in a couple of weeks? Some at other stations already have quit.

(What do the local stations say about this? From a leaked internal memo at Sinclair’s KATU in Portland: "Please DO NOT answer any questions or get into any discussion with callers, as they try to navigate to someone internally. … Most certainly don't talk to the press about the issue.” Got it.)

The must-read Sinclair script parroted by local anchors ends with the words, “this is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” That part, they got right. Here’s hoping no other corporate masters try pulling the same thing on the rest of local TV news.
 

Housing tidal wave

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In Canyon County, where population and economic growth ordinarily is not just approved of but eagerly sought, organizations like the Canyon County Agricultural Planning Area Committee usually start with an easily accepted point of view: Mo’ growth, mo’ better.

But not so much at their last meeting in Caldwell.

The group, which will be advising the county on zoning and its comprehensive plan, was considering the question of the use of land for farming as opposed to land for housing.

A report in the Idaho Press Tribune said that “Some attendees expressed concern about Meridian development spilling over into the farmland in North Nampa. One Nampa farmer told staff that development was happening in his area quicker than he had ever seen.” One spoke of a “wall of houses” encroaching from Ada County into Canyon.

Another farmer replied, “It’s not a wall of houses. It’s a tidal wave.”

Also last week, a group of mostly Canyon Countians spoke similarly at the new, small city of Star, where a local comprehensive plan change might lead to turning 5,000 rural acres into medium or low-density housing. Star is in Ada County, in what has long been an agricultural northwest corner of it, but it’s close by Canyon, and the spillover effects were concerning for a crowd of 300 people - larger than the norm for a planning commission meeting in a small town.

These kind of developments have been happening at increasing speed, and seem likely to accelerate as long as growth does in the Ada-Canyon area.

The reasons go beyond developer pressure to be allowed to do more business. The fact that demand is so high is a large part of the reason for this tidal wave of houses.

A day after touring some of the huge fields of new houses in western Ada County, the big new crop in that area, I had coffee with an old friend who lived for many years on the east coast, a former Idahoan moving back to his old home area.

But not exactly into his old town of Boise; he had to settle for several miles away from it. He intended moving back there. But it didn’t work out, because he could find no houses (at least, suitable) in Boise for near what he could pay - and that’s after selling his comparable place in an eastern state metro area. Houses with a price tag under $200,000 are rare birds now in Boise, and hard to find nearby. If you’re an average income homebuyer, and your income is below the executive level, you’re going to have a hard time finding a place there.

One reason is that there isn’t enough residential space available to meet the need.

What we’re seeing now may be another housing bubble; in fact, probably it is. But for now, housing is in too limited supply in the Boise region, and in other regions around Idaho - in Kootenai County, in Twin Falls and elsewhere. If you can afford high-end digs, you have ample choices. If you can’t, you’re probably in a difficult market.

This is something Idaho officials are going to have to come to grips with. Want to both preserve farmland and house the people of the Gem State? Some better answers are going to have to be found.
 

A couple months out

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In conversations with a range of politically-interested Idahoans this week, I heard more often than anything else comments about The Commercial.

I should say that I haven’t seen it, and haven’t been able to find it online. I’m told its source is not the Tommy Ahlquist campaign for Idaho governor, but rather an independent committee in support of him. It is said to be running mostly on cable television, and is described (maybe the key thing about it is how it is described) like this:

Much of the ad shows Ahlquist’s two main opponents for the Republican nomination, Representative Raul Labrador and Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, on a split screen. It describes each of them (speaking generally here) as career politicians, or at least making the point that both have been in elective office a number of years. It attaches to each complaints about various policy decisions (such as taxes), suggesting those as evidence of inadequate conservatism. Little and Labrador, then, are meant to be considered as part of a failed status quo, and Ahlquist the fresh broom seeking to sweep clean. (Ahlquist apparently does not appear in the commercial.)

(photo/Ahlquist, left, and Little; by Mark Mendiola)

Okay. As a political tactic, something like that makes sense, and it may be effective. It probably is effective, in fact, since it seems to be generating a lot of discussion. (Much of the discussion I happened to hear wasn’t positive, exactly, but that’s beside the point.)

Call it another bolt of uncertainty in a year-long race for the nomination that looks no more settled today than it did six months ago.

Asking for opinions about who is likely to win, the most common response I get is, “Labrador.” The main argument for that is his substantial and highly loyal voter base, which is surely there. But there’s a question about exactly how large the base is, how far around the state it extends, and whether the mainstream Republican segment exemplified by Little might still be large enough to prevail. After a minute’s reflection, the amended reply tends to be, “You know, I really don’t know who’s likely to win.”

On Monday, the pollster Dan Jones and Associates released a poll showing the three candidates bunched closely together - not much outside the margin of error - with a still-large percentage reported as undecided. (Yes, yes: Some questions have been raised about the Jones polls, but we don’t have much other public polling available.) It’s a reasonable match to what Jones has reported before, but, especially given the large number of undecideds, doesn’t on its own give much support to any particular prediction.

One other thought was the suggestion that a low voter turnout probably would help Labrador most, while a high turnout might help Little. That sounds about correct, roughly. The turnout numbers eventually will be worth parsing, but it’s hard to know now what they’ll look like. They might trend high because of the large number of contested primaries at the top of the ballot. Or, in common with a number of other states, Republican turnout may be a little down in this year compared to four or eight years ago. Hard to know.

And then there’s The Commercial, which might shift some attitudes among voters, maybe enough to affect an outcome in a close race. But in what direction?

A year of campaigning, and we still wind up remarkably close to where we all started ...
 

Scattered filings

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A few observations in parsing the lists of candidates for the May primary election, and beyond . . .

Lots of Republicans, in grand total, running for governor and in the first U.S. House district. Several of them have little realistic chance of winning, of course (welcome back for the nth time, Harley Brown!), but while the nominations in those races are not sewn up, they might have some effect. For example, the governor’s race is likely to be dominated by (and won by) Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, Representative Raul Labrador or businessman Tommy Ahlquist, but there is a possibility that the vote totals for the three of them are not far apart. Four other lesser-known candidates also are slated for the ballot. Here’s the point: If each of them gets, say, one to three percentage points, what effect might that have on the numbers for the top three? Hard to say, making this race all the harder to predict.

Both of those same offices also feature Democratic contested primaries, three contenders for each. These contests are not especially predictable either. In the governor’s race, either A.J. Balukoff - because he was the party’s nominee for the office four years ago - or Paulette Jordan - an incumbent legislator who has picked up a lot of attention in recent weeks - seems likely to win. But that race too does not seem settled yet.

Even lieutenant governor, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction drew Democratic primary contests this time. Party leaders may wish the contenders had been spread out among a few more offices. Still, all these contests taken together, even if none look now to be particularly high profile, may keep a few more Democratic voters home voting in their own elections rather than crossing over to vote on the Republican side.

Democrats weren’t especially heavily represented, however, among the legislative contests. There, the numbers seem not especially different from filings in most recent years, with exceptions in some places.

More action did show up in District 2, one of the most rock-ribbed right-leaning sectors of Idaho, and one of the House seats there actually has a competitive Democratic primary. This is a district Democrats often have let go in recent cycles, so the results will be worth watching, despite the big challenge they face.

Once again, the purplish District 15 in western Ada County, which has voted consistently Republican through the decade but by ever-shrinking margins, will be worth a watch. Once again, Democrat Steve Berch is back to take another crack at a House seat in the area; he has lost a string of elections, but he keeps edging closer.

A surface reading of the filings suggests that not a lot will change in the makeup of the Idaho Legislature next term. There are notable retirements, such as that of the two co-chairs of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. But the group photo, and overall partisan makeup, of the legislature next time may not be a lot different from what it is today.

Unless it so happens that the voters decide otherwise, which they could do. But bear in mind that 44 of the 105 seats effectively have been conceded to Republicans - those are seats with only Republican or minor-party candidates filing - unless someone runs a write-in campaign at the primary election. (Three seats currently have no Republican candidates.)

In another area, in the “surprising by its quiet” category, there’s just one judicial contest in the whole state this year, and that for filling a judicial vacancy. 5th District Judge Randy Stoker died in January, and four candidates have filed to replace him.

Below the top of the ballot, and whatever the interest level nationally, this may be not by an especially noisy election year in Idaho.
 

Something different

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Politics in West Virginia has been stunned this season by a congressional candidate, Richard Ojeda, a one-term legislator and former Army paratrooper. A Democrat, he is running for Congress in a strongly Republican U.S. House district (open this year, as the Republican incumbent is running for the Senate), and his candidacy is the talk of the state. Where he goes, crowds develop, and they chant his name.

One description called him “JFK with tattoos and branch press,” but a lot of his appeal is this: He’s fierce. He was a key spark behind the recent West Virginia teachers’ strike - the strikers love him - and he generates reports like this in Politico: “Ojeda uncorked a nearly unbroken, 13-minute tirade in which he called lobbyists ‘the absolute scum of the earth,’ said they should have to wear body cameras in the Capitol, said they shouldn’t even be allowed ‘in the damn Capitol’.” Not what you might think of as a stereotypical coastal Democrat.

He won’t necessarily win. Then again, he might.

Some of this came to mind when I heard from Jim Fabe, a newly-filed Democratic candidate for Idaho lieutenant governor in Idaho (one of two as this is written). He said in an e-mail that he has been “a licensed dentist in Idaho since 1979, in addition to a stockbroker, insurance agent, major in the US Army and a farmer.”

He has an unusual and complicated background. For example: “In 2006 I was recruited to serve using my degrees of DDS and MBA in the United States Army. I entered as a major because of my background, experience and foreign language skills. I helped with computer based human identification, which is creating a data base of dental x-rays; panoramic (jaw) x-rays and DNA to identify soldiers. My role was to supervise the entry of the dental x-rays and the panoramic x-rays that was made by technicians, enlisted service members, lieutenants and captains.” That’s a little different.

What is he concerned about? He cites climate change (from a farmer’s perspective), managing growth in Idaho (something not many candidates have discussed), health care (with a position unlike any I’ve heard elsewhere, across the spectrum) and addressing credit interest rates.

One of his immediate prompts to run was: “I want to answer to my 16 year old son: which adults created a safer environment for our children. I believe that the right to life for school age children is more important than the civilian use of military weapons.”

But before you pigeon-hole him on guns, consider what else he has to say on the second amendment: “Create a well regulated militia of ages 30-59. All able bodied/able minded citizens will be required from age 30 to 59 to train and be proficient with handguns and rifles. Eliminate guns for ages less than 30, and 60 and over, to reduce school shootings and suicides. Elimination of assault weapons for civilian use. Distinguish between militia and army use of weapons.”

That should make for an interesting discussion.

Don’t consider any of this an endorsement of the Fabe platform; I’d just say here it’s an interesting mix. But that’s the point.

Candidates like Fabe, and Ojeda, are outside the mold, and shouldn’t be treated as cookie-cutter candidates. More than a party label ought to be in the mix as voters make their choices.
 

Too much ain’t enough

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Idaho isn’t on the list of states afflicted by partisan gerrymandering, and never has been. That could change, and it could affect who gets elected to the Idaho Legislature.

Back in the day when Idaho legislators did the redrawing of district maps, there was some caution about going very far in pressing party advantage; partisanship was less hyper then, and the split between the two major parties was not so great. And after frustrating attempts to do the job in the 1990s, the legislature and then voters in 1994 passed a constitutional amendment turning redistricting over to a commission. It has been a genuinely bipartisan commission, with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, and it has functioned not always easily but generally well ever since.

It might be bipartisan no more if a new proposed constitutional amendment clears the legislature and the voters. It would keep the commission but increase the number of members from six to nine, and the odd - presumably decisive - member would be picked by the legislative council. Since 1960, and into the foreseeable future, that council has been Republican-controlled, so strongly partisan mapmaking, of the Pennsylvania or North Carolina variety, could at least be on the table.

The Senate State Affairs Committee has cleared the measure on (surprise!) party-line vote.

So what difference might it make?

One reason Idaho has had little by way of gerrymandering may be the overall disparity between the parties in the state. In many of the most-gerrymandered states, such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, the two parties are much closer in overall voting support. Idaho, of course, is not like that.

I’ve examined Idaho legislative and congressional maps over several decades, and one obvious conclusion is that there isn’t much way - even if a highly partisan Democrat could unilaterally impose whatever map he drew - to significantly reduce the number of Republican districts, congressional or state, in favor of Democratic. An interactive map on the website fivethirtyeight.com has an option for showing the congressional districts’ lines in each state that, for example, most favor Republicans and most favor Democrats (based on past votes). For Idaho, those maps look different, but in both cases Republicans still are overwhelmingly favored in both districts.

The state legislative situation is a little different.

The reason is partly that there are so many Republican voters overall, and partly that so many of Idaho’s Democrats are clumped into small geographic places.

Scattered Democrats can be found all over, even in the rural east and rural north, but numbers substantial enough to win even local district elections can be found in only a few places. Boise city is much the largest; other groupings can be found in the centers of most of the larger cities and in a few other places such as the Wood River and Teton valleys.

Here’s what redistricting could do: Break up those few Democratic outposts by diluting them with surrounding Republican territory, and nearly eliminate Democrats from Idaho Legislature.

Four legislative districts in Boise lean strongly toward Democrats. Those districts are surrounded by Republican territory. It wouldn’t be especially hard to wipe out at least a couple, maybe three, of those districts by slicing the city and the surrounding parts of Ada County as well.

There’s one Democratic legislator left in northern Idaho, elected largely on the strength of a Democratic base at Moscow. Slice Moscow into two districts, central Coeur d’Alene as well, and no more Democrats. You could do the same thing to the Wood River Valley, which now anchors a district represented by two Democratic legislators. Split the valley and they’re gone.

What would be the practical effect? Instead of 17 Democrats, maybe a half-dozen would be left. If that. Out of 105.

If the current level of Republican domination in Idaho isn’t enough for you, the Idaho Legislature may send you your answer this fall.
 

Don’t get lost in Idaho

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Last week, the Idaho Legislature, a decade or so behind several of its neighbors, moved toward banning use of hand-held cell phones by motor vehicle drivers.

Not all the members of the committee reviewing the bill agreed. Senator Mark Harris, a Republican of Soda Springs, said that “I get the safety thing, OK? I do.” But he said that sometimes getting on the phone with his wife could help on “a lonely stretch of road.” He could, of course, still use a speaker phone or bluetooth.

Harris’ key point, though, was (as one news report said) summed up by his description of a conversation with some people visiting in Boise from California where “they’d had it with regulation, they’d had it with laws, they’d had it with rules. And they were up here looking for a house because Idaho doesn’t have laws, rules and regulations like California does. And that’s where I see this bill headed is more law, rules and regulation. I can’t support it.”

More rules, more regulation. That’s probably the underlying reason Idaho hasn’t joined the hands-free states so far. Got it.

Now let’s move our gaze to House Bill 536, which like the cell phone bill gets support from conservative Republicans on philosophical grounds, and which was proposed by Senator Harris along with Representative July Boyle, Republican of Midvale, with support from a number of farm groups. Testimony went on for hours at the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, which ultimately passed it to the floor 14-1. (It was awaiting House floor consideration as this was written.)

The 15-page bill does a number of things. One is to eliminate the requirement that, if you want people to be legally liable for trespassing on your property, you have to put up a readily visible warning sign to that effect. The signs are currently supposed to be spaced at no more than 660 feet apart so as to be visible. The new bill would drastically cut back on the warnings.

It also will create new felony and misdemeanor crimes of criminal trespass; the felony version can mean a state prison lockup for up to a year. And life would be more complicated for hunters, fishers and trappers who venture on to privately-owned land.

Boyle said that “It is going to now be on the person who wants to be on private property to know where they are at and go ask permission. … makes a higher standard for people to know where they are.”

Recognize for a moment just how serious a felony is. Felons are marked for life. They are barred from all kinds of employment, financial help and many kinds of social activity - even if the felony in question, like this one, is non-violent. A felony conviction is thoroughly life-changing.

Representative Randy Armstrong, an Inkom Republican (who went on to recommend passage of the bill), said, “It seems like a felony is a pretty serious charge for trespassing. It changes your life once you become a felon — you can’t carry a gun, can’t vote for a certain number of years. I think everybody in this room has been guilty of trespass in some way or another in their life. Is that a penalty that we want to make for trespassing?”

Boyle: “As a property owner, I think that is exactly what we need to teach them a lesson.”

Well, gee. Makes me feel more free already. Be sure to share that sentiment with any of those Californians in Boise who get lost, or get snagged by an unmarked property line, on their trip to the Gem State. Or better yet, warn them to stay away. The law can get dangerous here, a point that might be put on the signs at the state border.
 

Dennis and Sheila Olsen

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About the same time I started reporting on Idaho politics back in the seventies, in Pocatello, the Idaho Republican Party chose a new chairman, an attorney from nearby Idaho Falls named Dennis Olsen.

He was tough-minded (smooth diplomacy was not his strongest suit), a fine organizer and a careful watcher of the party’s money - all of which he wanted spent on the campaigns, not left over for anything other than electing Republicans. He was a Reagan Republican when Ronald Reagan was president, and he was there at Idaho Falls when candidate Reagan made his 1980 Idaho appearance.

Dennis Olson died in March 1985, shoveling snow at his house. He had prepared a succession plan for the party organization - a fellow Idaho Falls attorney named Blake Hall would take over - but the ripple effects of his work started closer to home: The deep and long-lasting civic engagement of his wife, Sheila.

Sheila Olsen, who recently died at 79 in Idaho Falls, was at least as important a Republican leader as her husband had been. She too would happily have called herself a Reagan Republican. But she was a different kind of leader, with a different sort of legacy.

She was active in the Idaho Republican Party, less as an office holder and more as a lodestar; the kind of person others looked to for good counsel and guidance. For candidates, her support was eagerly sought; her perspective carried weight. She was an electoral college elector, a post which reflected less personal work or decision-making on her part (or that of any other electors), but rather the esteem she held across the Republican Party. A lot of Democrats and independents held her in high regard too.

She was as active as you could be in the realm of civic pushups. Far from being a partisan obsessive, Sheila Olsen was active in the community in a wide range of roles. She served on the Idaho Human Rights Commission for many years, on the Governor’s Work Force Development Council, the state reapportionment commission, the state Employment Security Advisory Council, and other organizations, including a long list at Idaho Falls, as well. She was highly active in her church too.

What the many people who knew her also knew was something else that might have sidelined many others: For about half a century, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which bore down on her as the years went on. But as one of her children said, “She was a glass-half-full girl. It didn’t matter how hard it was for her to get places or do things — she just still did them without complaining.”

There were various good reasons she was looked up to, but that last point highlights one of the most important: She was a supporter, not a denigrator, a backer, not a demolition activist. She would provide endorsements where she thought them merited, but if you were looking for bombs to throw, you’d need to look somewhere else.

Sheila Olsen came into Idaho politics in a day when partisan issues were clear enough, and loyalties were evident, but when the demonizing that has become so commonplace today had not yet taken hold. It didn’t take hold of her.

Her example would be worth some reflection for us now.